It is said when he was being taken away at dead of night
on June 25, 1975, a bewildered Jayaprakash Narayan looked
out of the windows of the police car, unable to understand
why the somnolent city showed no signs of exploding in
massive outrage at the blow that Indira Gandhi had dealt
story is probably apocryphal; but it might well be true.
JP did not fail the people. The people failed him. Posterity
will remember him -- if at all -- as the apostle of one
more revolution that never was.
faithful regard him as the best prime minister India never
had. Like Mohandas Gandhi and Ram Manohar Lohia, he declined
to seek or hold public office. Others saw him as an extra-constitutional
centre of power like Sanjay Gandhi. The wits even claimed
there were three founts of authority during Morarji Desai's
troubled prime ministership -- the Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha
and Jaslok Sabha, the last named after the Mumbai hospital
where JP spent much of his time.
was heir to an ancient and formidable legacy. Bihar's
Magadha heartland, where JP was born, "not only produced
relentless fighters and exterminators of kings" but "hearkened
at the same time to the devout teachings of Vardhamana
Mahavira and Gautama Buddha". Magadha was the scene of
the Buddha's enlightenment; Ajatsatru, who waged war on
Buddhism, was born there.
circuitous career did not betray this complex heritage.
He penetrated beyond party dynamics to grasp, as few other
leaders did, some of the causes of India's stagnation
-- education was only "an escalator to reach the top",
the middle class would always block systemic reform, an
opposition victory alone would change nothing. But there
was something of the gadfly in the man who combined the
qualities of sage and strategist, who took the trodden
path from communism to conservatism, who was quick to
point out that it was illogical of Jawaharlal Nehru to
expect capitalists to create his socialist elysium, but
failed to recognise the dichotomy of his own crusade to
reform society by destroying all its established institutions.
John Foster Dulles interrupting the full spate of Nehru's
thunder against military pacts to ask why India did not
join the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation, JP saw no
contradiction in expecting the government to participate
in his programme of "struggle and reconstruction, confrontation
ruled his life. He was an extreme nationalist by the time
he was 14, taking cold water baths, wearing only a khadi
dhoti and crude village-made sandals. Throwing away his
school books, he refused to attend a British-style college
in protest against the Rowlatt Act and the Jallianwala
Bagh massacre. But the seven years (1922-29) that he spent
in the US (where he soaked up Das Kapital) must have had
a profound effect: the theories of Soviet conspiracy in
India, especially in Mrs Gandhi's Congress, that he articulated
might have come straight out of a Central Intelligence
in the fires of British Indian jails where he spent eight
years, and in conventional politics for nearly 30, he
disagreed with the fundamentals of Nehru's Fabian constitutionalism,
being convinced that the whole of India could never be
governed from a single centre. His attempts to topple
Nepal's absolutist oligarchy demonstrated that he had
outgrown the Ohio University professor who had found him
"aggressive in thought but not in action".
founded the Socialist Party in 1948 but took the crucial
decision to renounce electoral politics six years later.
This caused widespread dismay for many had hoped that
he would become prime minister, blending Nehru's administrative
and diplomatic skills with Gandhi's vision and commitment
to the multitude. But realising the limitations of parliamentary
democracy in India, JP joined Vinoba Bhave and spent the
next 20 years "searching for some other way".
was not a fruitful exercise. When Biju Patnaik invited
him in 1973 to lead an all-India front as an alternative
to the Congress, JP replied wisely that the initiative
lacked a positive programme. The need was not a change
of guard at the top but to fight oppression and the destruction
of civil liberties; to solve the problems of unemployment
and inflation; to revitalise planning and reform the electoral
the mass movements of 1974-75 in Gujarat and Bihar were
no more coherent and focused than Patnaik's Bharatiya
Lok Dal, even if they brought down or paralysed state
regimes. JP's own glimpse of the Holy Grail of a new India
was not vouchsafed to the lusty crowds that chanted Sampoorna
kranti ab naaraa hai, bhaavi itihas hamaara hai (total
revolution is our slogan; future history belongs to us).
Some of his followers were the lumpen proletariat, attracted
as always by the prospect of pickings from turmoil. At
another level, his movement bestowed respectability on
Swatantra Party and Jana Sangh elements that had lost
credibility. Few shared his perception of the governmental
apparatus, reforming itself under external pressure.
was not JP's fault. The knowledge of his own temperament
that had prompted him to eschew politics in 1954 should
have warned him against what was in effect backdoor entry
into the same arena two decades later. It identified him
with the narrow-based forces that he had spurned earlier
and enabled Mrs Gandhi to accuse him of being a tool in
the hands of a khichri coalition whose one-point programme
was her removal.
Janata Party's squabbles were a reminder that she did
not enjoy a monopoly of self-seeking intrigue. JP tried
to make the best of things by nominating Morarji Desai
to be prime minister, but this involvement in murky politicking
was a far cry from the sampoorna kranti (total revolution)
of his dreams.
diagnosis of what is wrong with India remains as true
in the new millennium as it was 40 years ago. But not
his prescription. Judged on the touchstone of what he
set out to do, his career can't be regarded a success.
Nobody knew this better than JP himself. As he wrote in
his prison diary, he tried "to bring about ever so little
change in government policy" through conferences but the
effort was wasted even in Nehru's time. "The leviathan
went its own way."
a politician in office may not -- usually does not --
do anything for the country, a politician out of office
can't. If he is of the stature of a JP, India sets him
on a pedestal, and ignores his precepts. An effective
way of neutralising inconvenient prophets.
of Bihar Shows the Way, Sunanda
K. Datta-Ray is former editor, The Statesman,
and editor-in-residence, East-West Center, Honolulu.